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Thursday, May 30, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Consultant Demands Return of ‘Frontline’ Files

BOZEMAN, Mont. (CN) - A consultant to a conservative group claims in court that a state official gave "Frontline" access to stolen documents suggesting that the group illegally coordinated with Republican candidates.

American Tradition Partnership consultant Christian LeFer and his wife, Allison, sued Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry in Lewis & Clark County Court, seeking to block him from disclosing the documents to other media and demanding that he return them immediately.

Boxes of files were stolen from Allison LeFer's car in 2010 and reportedly found in a meth house near Denver, according to the lawsuit. The boxes contained files on 23 conservative candidates in state races in Montana, including candidate surveys, mailers, notes and bank records.

LeFer claims Murry somehow obtained the documents and showed them to a "Frontline" reporter investigating the influence of outside money on Montana's elections since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted restrictions on corporate political speech.

Information from the files was featured in stories on PBS' and ProPublica's websites, and in a "Frontline" news documentary called "Big Sky, Big Money," which aired Tuesday night.

The documentary suggested that American Tradition Partnership, formerly Western Tradition Partnership, had coordinated its efforts with Republican candidates and their wives in violation of Montana's Corrupt Practices Act.

The accusation sparked a protest in Helena, in part because the tax-exempt social welfare group was behind a lawsuit challenging Montana's campaign law. ATP had argued that "contributions made to committees making independent expenditures do not give rise to corruption."

The Montana Supreme Court upheld the 100-year-old Corrupt Practices Act, but the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed the state high court's ruling.

Montana's law barred corporations from making "an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or political party." It was similar to the federal law that the Supreme Court struck down in Citizens United .

In a statement on its website, ATP dismissed the "Frontline" report as "simply the latest unsubstantiated, well-coordinated attack" on the conservative group, which opposes "radical anti-growth environmentalists."

"It would be very interesting to know just how several media outlets were able to view stolen documents in the custody of the Montana Commission on Political Practices but no attempt was made to return them to their owners," said ATP Executive Director Donald Ferguson. "This looks to be just another example of corruption at the Commission and by the political establishment, who are enraged that the public are being told the truth."

"Frontline" reported that the documents came from Alan Schwartz, husband of Colorado state Sen. Gail Schwartz, a Democrat. The couple were allegedly tipped off about the files by a man whose friend found them in Allison LeFer's stolen car.

In his lawsuit, LeFer says the documents contain "private financial information and proprietary information about the workings of the business," along with information about his "relationships and strategies," which could damage his business and clients if exposed. LeFer is the former head of Montana Citizens for Right to Work and the creator of GetNonprofitStatus.com.

He also claims disclosure will irreparably harm his fund-raising credibility, "as his donors expect and are legally entitled to privacy when their gifts are not subject to disclosure pursuant to law."

"Commissioner Murry has no right to remain in possession of the stolen property, and has no right to disclose it or its contents to the public," the lawsuit states.

Murry told Courthouse News that he showed "Frontline" the files because they were public documents, but said that's no longer the case. He has since made the files unavailable pending a court order, as they may be evidence in a criminal investigation of the stolen car.

He said the files sat in his office for "a couple of years" before the "Frontline" investigation, but his office was too understaffed and overworked to go through them all. He also said he was told the documents couldn't be used in any of the court cases involving ATP.

Murry declined to comment on the LeFers' lawsuit specifically.

The LeFers seek an order barring further disclosure and forcing Murry to return the files. They are represented by Quentin Rhoades of Sullivan, Tabaracci & Rhoades in Missoula.

On Wednesday night, someone broke into Murry's office building in Helena. Murry said nothing appears to have been stolen, but there was evidence that files had been "messed with" and rearranged.

It was unclear whether the break-in was related to the "Frontline" episode. Murry said the documents featured in "Big Sky, Big Money" were in a secure location off premises at the time.

Local authorities are investigating the incident.

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